The German parliament on Friday passed a law aimed at to fine social media networks up to 50 million euros ($57 million) if they fail to remove “obviously illegal” content in time, despite concerns the law could limit free expression.
The measure approved Friday is designed to enforce the country’s existing limits on speech, including the long-standing ban on Holocaust denial.
Germany has some of the world’s toughest laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, with prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities. But few online cases are prosecuted.
The law gives Facebook, YouTube, and other sites 24 hours to delete or block hate speech or obviously criminal content and seven days to deal with less clear-cut cases, with an obligation to report back to the person who filed the complaint about how they handled the case.
Failure to comply could see a company fined up to 50 million euros, and the company’s chief representative in Germany fined up to 5 million euros.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas argued that social media networks have failed to prevent their sites from being used to spread inflammatory views and false information, adding that a measure to “end the Internet law of the jungle” would not infringe freedom of speech.
The issue has taken on more urgency as German politicians worry that proliferating fake news and racist content, particularly about migrants, could sway public opinion in the run-up to a national election on Sept. 24.
However, human rights experts and Internet companies have voiced their concern over the law risking privatizing the process of censorship and affecting free speech.
Organizations representing digital companies, consumers and journalists claim the tight time limits are unrealistic and will lead to accidental censorship as technology companies err on the side of caution and delete ambiguous posts to avoid paying penalties.
In response, the government has softened the legislation by excluding email and messenger providers and opening up the option of creating joint monitoring facilities to make decisions about what content to remove.
It also made clear that a fine would not necessarily be imposed after just one infraction, but only after a company systematically refused to act or does not set up a proper complaint management system.